“How does a member of both groups [black and Jewish] survive?” he asked.
Eitches’ question was rhetorical. He said his son would survive with “loving encouragement” and with “the knowledge that we are all joined at the same hip,” but the article contained a palpable anxiety over what the future would hold for the interracial Eitches family.
Nearly 33 years later, Eddie and his wife Rachel, an African American who converted to Judaism before their marriage, recently celebrated the ritual circumcision of their first grandson — the son of their daughter Elyse Eitches and Jose Rodrigo Portillo, who is El Salvadoran. Eddie and Rachel reflected on both the progress that has occurred since the brit milah of their first child, and also the challenges they faced as a trailblazing interracial Jewish couple.
For one, while the Eitches said they were always welcome at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, they told the stories of encountering overt racism from the Jewish community in the 1980s.
Eddie said that there isn’t “total acceptance” of interracial couples in the Jewish community today, but he was clear that things have improved dramatically.
Rachel described how rare it was to see interethnic couples in the years when her children were growing up.
“On the one hand, you can say that you were a model, but on the other hand there wasn’t a steady growth of people cross-culturally marrying and being in the Jewish community,” she said, adding that adoption across ethnic lines did become more prevalent after she and her husband married.
The brit milah of their grandson, Ajani Mateo Eitches-Portillo, took place at Adas Israel during the recent Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend.
During the ceremony, Rachel said it was significant that the brit milah was during a weekend that honors the civil rights leader.
“It seems fitting that it is on this Shabbat when we celebrate the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King who fought a very important struggle for racial equality and civil rights that we welcome Ajani Mateo into the covenant of the Jewish community to join in its struggle for tikkun olam,” she said.
Etan Eitches — Rachel and Eddie’s son who was featured in the 1984 article — is now an emergency room doctor, and he held Ajani in the traditional role of sandek during the circumcision ceremony last month.
As Eddie and Rachel described the ceremony in their McLean home a few weeks later, it was clear that they took pride in their family. They raised four children, and their house, which is filled with art from around the world, also contains a series of vibrant paintings of their family by the artist Fred Folsom at the time of each of their children’s bar or bat mitzvah.
The paintings, which are heavily symbolic, show the family aging over time. The one done at the time of the b’not mitzvah of their two youngest daughters, who are twins, imagines a scene in which President Barack Obama is draping a tallit over the two girls.
Eddie observed that one of the big developments since the 1980s is that now interfaith and interracial couples generally choose to raise their children with one of the parents’ religions. “It’s become pretty accepted that it doesn’t really work when you have a Christmas tree and a menorah,” he said.
He added that he and Rachel made a decision early on to raise their children with one religion. “From day one, I wanted to be sure that these kids were African American and Rachel wanted to be sure that they were Jewish.”
Rachel said she is encouraged that “young Jews, including biracials, have begun to form alliances designed to facilitate their relations within the Jewish community.” Specifically, she mentioned the groups Shin DC (Sephardic Heritage in DC) and This is What a Jew Looks Like.
“The existence of these groups shows that the process of knitting together the diverse ethnic components of the American Jewish community is progressing,” she said. “I take it as a good sign that outreach and inclusion, rather that separatism, seems to be the driving force of these groups.”
Eddie reflected on the world that Ajani will face, and hoped that the newest Eitches will continue his family’s legacy of interracial progress.
“We assume that Ajani will be fighting for justice, fighting to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice,” he said. “He has a special responsibility because he’s not at the bottom.”